Several months ago Sébastien Damarey, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, sent me a very interesting historical artifact — an interview with Florent Schmitt that was published in the January 25, 1929 issue of the French arts magazine Le Guide du concert et des théâtres lyriques.
What makes this article particularly significant is because while we have a number of Florent Schmitt interviews (print and audio) that date from late in his life, there are few that date from the important middle period of his career. The 1920s to the early 1930s was a time when Schmitt was creating some of his most daring compositions — piano works like Scherzo sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré (1922), the vocal set Kérob-Shal (1924) and the startling (and technically gnarly) Symphonie concertante (1932) for orchestra with piano.
It’s likely that the feature interview of Schmitt that appeared in Le Guide du concert, which carries the byline “M. Rousseau,” was prepared by Marcel Rousseau, who was an organist, composer, professor of harmony, a music journalist and later director of the Paris Opéra (1941-44). He also served as president of the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM) from 1919 to 1922.
As for the interview itself, the American music critic Steven Kruger notes that Rousseau brings up the composer’s reputation for brusqueness in stating certain unsolicited opinions. Kruger observes:
“That certainly sounds like Florent Schmitt — courtly and polite, but definitely not sitting on his assessment of things. And in typical French fashion, the interlocutor sets the scene with drama about the weather!”
Kruger goes on to observe:
“It’s amusing that Schmitt admires Fauré for being a man of the world, and for attending soirées as much as he does for Fauré’s instruction. Schmitt suggests that his own travels were the most important part of his education, and he seems eager to show himself as a self-made person.”
Cyril Plante, another admirer of Florent Schmitt’s music who is an official at the French Ministry of Defense, also serves as president of Cercle National Richard Wagner – Paris (one of the member organizations of the International Association of Richard Wagner Societies). He notes that Schmitt’s reference to “Mme. de S. M.” most assuredly means Mme. Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, whose Paris salon was a fixture on the arts scene from 1880 until the beginning of the First World War.
About the interviewer’s description of Forent Schmitt’s character (coups de boutoir), Plante offers a very plausible explanation: The territory of Lorraine has been subject to periodic invasions over its history, even as recently as 60 years prior to the 1929 Guide du concert interview (with yet another invasion to come ten years hence). Considering such a history, the “combative” aspects of the temperament of Eastern French people seem only natural.
Plante also vouches for the accuracy of several comments made by Schmitt in the interview, including his rather disdainful references to the study of solfège. According to Plante, during the time when Schmitt was a student the first years of curriculum in French music schools were nearly 100% devoted to the “arid” study of music theory. As well, Schmitt’s comments about the sometimes-contentious role of labor unions in the life of French musical theatre — and indeed in all the arts — are on point.
Furthermore, Plante points out that Schmitt was by no means the only Prix de Rome recipient who was put off by the cloistered atmosphere at the Villa Medici. “The trip to Rome was reputed to be less than popular with musicians who preferred to explore the Italian peninsula rather than shut themselves up in the Villa Medici — and the directors were generally accommodating,” he explains.
As for the tone of Florent Schmitt’s comments in the 1929 Guide du concert interview, French pianist and composer Nicolas Horvath sees a good deal of what he characterizes as “second-degree French humor and sarcasm,” noting:
“With such words, is it any wonder that Schmitt’s music was erased from the French music world? His comments about dodecaphony and musical ‘gods’ like Stravinsky and Schoenberg are strong — and surely must have incited the Boulezian cultish and quasi-fascistic views of how the ‘music of the future’ should sound!”
But for Horvath, that characterization is a far cry from the remembrances shared in 1960 by the composer’s third biographer, Madeleine Marceron, “where we encounter a man so humble and yet so passionate about creating music — and so different from the usual image we have of him in France,” as he states.
In the interview, Florent Schmitt’s assessment of other composers seems in some ways surprising. Steven Kruger comments:
“I find it intriguing that Schmitt seems bored by Franck, while admiring Chabrier for liberating rhythm (which Franck definitely did not do). And he wishes for more Lalo, plus Glazunov and Enescu symphonies; so much for Schoenberg or Stravinsky!
Schmitt also sees right through the counterfeit individuality of composers aiming for the shock value of stressing something ‘new.’ Or by adopting a fake ‘simplicity’ — in the process foreshadowing the efforts by some composers of today to be original by being ‘simple.’ One wonders what sort of barbs Schmitt would have lobbed against minimalism!
Ultimately, he seems to contend that there is no substitution for inspiration, which does not arrive by formula nor by belonging to any ‘school’; you simply know it when you hear it.”
Cyril Plante observes that a number of the composers cited by Schmitt in his interview are no longer household names — Jean Clergue, for example, who specialized in creating piano miniatures such as his Pochades and Musiques ingénues (some of which are less than a minute in duration). Georges Hugon, a one-time student of Paul Dukas, is also little-known today.
The 1929 interview of Florent Schmitt published in Le Guide du concert is reproduced in its entirety below. For those who do not read French, the article has also been translated into English which you’ll find immediately following the original piece.
English-language version of the Guide du concert article (with special thanks to Steven Kruger for his assistance on the translation):
An interview with Florent Schmitt
Florent Schmitt enjoys a usurped reputation: One approaches him with circumspection, expecting to find in him a bristling man always ready, with malicious joy, to “put his foot on the plate,” to disconcert you with a gruff sally. Instead, you discover a charming host who is waiting for you near a good fire and who offers you a cordial and gentle solicitude in the cold weather.
Obviously the bludgeoning that is attributed to him (on the basis of his Lorraine origin perhaps?) is not pure invention. He was and remains combative — up to and including the fight — when the interests of the offense he defends seem to him to be worth it. But he also relaxes willingly. At most, the vivacity of his temperament still manifests itself in the abruptness of certain judgments without appeal, and in his taste for definitive answers.
Through the living room windows, if the weather had been clear you could see the wooded slopes of St-Cloud, but the horizon is hidden by mists. Parks and country houses are spread out on each side of the road [Rue de Calvaire] waxed by the rain, which brings you to the top of “Calvary.” Quite a melancholic winter’s landscape, but with a silence conducive to work. Quilted atmosphere, soothing numbness of nature — the season is not the one for outbursts, nor for grudges against things or against men …
I ask Florent Schmitt about his youthful years.
FS: You want to know who taught me music theory? I was never taught it. It is wrong to generally confuse solfège and music, when one is by definition the enemy of the other. This detestable jumble causes most beginners to get discouraged and give up. Because if that’s the music … !
The only education in this art is that of the ear. Let the children hear music — real music of course — and let’s spare them commentaries and analyses and demonstrations. If the subject produces something in your gut, this will suffice; otherwise, all the music theory in the world will be powerless.
MR: Your protest sounds like a coquetry of the learned harmonist and orchestrator that you are.
FS: By music theory I mean only the rudiments, inculcated in children under the teacher’s ruler, at an age when they would rather play marbles. I am not aiming fire at harmony or fugue — on the contrary, too neglected and about which one can never know enough.
MR: Have you ever dealt, directly or otherwise, with questions of musical pedagogy, which periodically come up in public education?
FS: I’d be leery of it. I hate teaching, never having been able to give a proper lesson. But I have the right to nurture an opinion. As long as we persist in putting the cart before the horse — in teaching an emaciated theory before having interested and retained sensitivities, by hearing concerts or records, we will obtain the same result as today, i.e. exactly nothing.
MR: Did you have the chance, from the environment where you were brought up, to feel crystallizing in you the sense and the taste for music?
FS: It was quite late, although the torture of scales was not spared me as soon as I was old enough to stand properly on a stool. Music didn’t reveal itself to me until I was 16; for the first time then I heard an orchestra, and I discovered the [Beethoven] Symphony en la. Around the age of seventeen I began to work seriously, in Nancy, under the direction of [Henry] Hess and [Gustave] Sandré. Two years later I entered the Paris Conservatoire where I had for teachers [Théodore] Dubois, [Albert] Lavignac, [André] Gédalge, Massenet and Fauré.
MR: It’s probably pointless to ask which one had the most profound influence on you …
FS: As a teacher, Gédalge. He knew how to teach; you never sought him out without deriving a benefit.
As director of conscience, Fauré. The very opposite of the magister. He never had a pencil when he took it into his head to jot down some correction.
He delivered his coursework as a man of the world, discussing Mme. de S.M. [Mme. Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux] and her receptions as readily as the very object of the lesson. Moreover, his criticism never hit head-on as if for the pleasure of crushing the delinquent. Two discreet words suggesting perhaps a better opportunity for some other construction – or of a more satisfactory development — and that was all. It was enough for those who knew how to understand the value of the words.
Moreover, the example of the artist — a piece like the Seventh Nocturne, which pianists naturally avoid since it is the most beautiful — was more fruitful in teaching than any doctoral explanation.
MR: Do you have good memories of your stay in Rome?
It cost me quite a lot! Think of it: Five cantatas — Mélusine, Frédégonde, Radegonde, Callirhoé, finally Sémiramis in 1900 — I deserved compensation for that! In fact, the price was above all an excuse for me to travel. To avoid the straight line I made ‘hooks,’ either outbound or return, via Sweden, Turkey or Morocco. The inexhaustible leniency of the director of the school wiped out the delays that these complicated itineraries inevitably caused.
MR: In short, on the pretext that all roads lead to Rome, you managed to spend as little time as possible there! Was it that the attraction of the place was mediocre?
FS: “One tried above all to get a quiet room. As for the rest … !” However, I did meet two excellent friends there — the architect [Paul] Bigot and [composer André] Caplet.
MR: And you brought back part of your Quintet plus Psalm XLVII, without counting, no doubt, many sketches put on paper in Rome or in your adventurous travels. Thus, would you have written, in addition to the Psalm, works like Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre, Salammbó and Danse d’Abisag if those travels had not revealed to you the Biblical East and Africa?
FS: I don’t know. I think I could have gone to Greenland and still created Samoyed music! With so much fun and so few systems. If I evoked the Orient it is without distinguishing its themes; the only actually authentic motif that I ever used came from the shores of the Dead Sea, and appears in La Tragédie de Salomé.
MR: For a person who the public considers to be ever-preoccupied with creating something new, what do you think of the innovations [in music] with which we have been overwhelmed in recent years?
FS: I don’t see that much. As for trailblazers, there is Stravinsky, up to and including Les Noces. Since Mavra he has been treading water. There is also Schoenberg, who so admirably stylizes the wrong note and legitimizes the disharmony …
MR: Are you speaking seriously?
FS: Very sincerely. He is certainly convinced. I don’t have a special fondness for his music, but I admire it – and fear it.
MR: Can you explain the reasons that keep you away from it?
FS: I prefer not to formulate them, and besides he would prove me wrong, because he handles dialectics superbly. Yet his persuasive reasoning is losing ground, even in Germany. In France it has been promoted out of fashion, without trying to really understand it; we also left him slightly …
MR: Do you see any great trailblazers in France?
FS: To satisfy national self-esteem, there is obviously Debussy — a very great one, but so discussed that one barely thinks of him. And then Fauré and Chabrier – one for the example of melody and its depth, the other for his harmonic and rhythmic research. Because it was Chabrier who, before Debussy, shook up this harmony, rigid as a prison gate, and revived our moribund rhythms.
As for the role of Franck, others have celebrated it with more enthusiasm than I can do. But there is no denying that he too was a great musician.
MR: So Chabrier, so little played and hardly discussed, is for you an unsung hero?
FS: With many others, yes. Besides, great artists are never fashionable since they are of the ages. Routine reigns, in the orchestra as well as in the recital hall and on the lyrical stage. Shouldn’t we hear Le roi malgré lui more often, which hasn’t been performed in 40 years? How about the works of Lalo? And the symphonies of Dukas, Enescu, [Silvio] Lazzari, Glazunov, Koechlin and so many others?
MR: And among the young creators?
FS: The next-to-last generation has given us Honegger, whom his adulators would do better to let breathe a little. As for the latest recruits, they are still only bawling. There is, however, an instrument whose technique, in the absence of others, they have grasped at the first chance – and it is the bass drum of the fairground parade. And the onlookers, the stupid public, walk as one man …
I make exceptions, especially among their elders: [Claude] Delvincourt, Ibert, [Pierre-Octave] Ferroud, [Georges] Hugon, [Jean] Clergue. These are people who are rarely talked about, but who are likely to leave something to posterity other than emphatic or hollow trifles …
MR: So let’s leave the little ones to their foster fathers and come back, if you will, to those who, without knowing where perhaps, are guiding our music. Where are they leading us?
FS: It depends for how long. Three or four years from now, until the next bend in the road and if we haven’t fallen into the ditch, we will approach a certain clarity of line, a harmonic and architectonic simplification – a simplification partly synonymous with poverty. People claim that it is difficult to make it “simple” — a convenient paradox which camouflages an inability to design with complexity or to orchestrate “richly.”
Instrumentation is dead today. We don’t learn it anymore. We juxtapose together no matter which timbres and we “synthesize” to reduce the difficulty of execution and not upset conductors. On the stage the same policy is imposed.
MR: Then the great poverty of the lyrical theatre?
FS: Too real. It succumbs to outdated conventions, the cost of the sets, the pretensions of the soloists, the demands of the choristers who hardly know any discipline and eurythmics except for those of the union.
Lyricism is not dead, but it is suffocating. And it is not liberating it to marginalize it with choral melodrama in the antique style or the tragedy-ballet with a developed vocal part (an attempt otherwise full of interest and very viable).
MR: How do you judge the attitude of the audience in all of this?
FS: The crowd doesn’t care about any of that; they like [André] Perchicot. The romantic nonsense about inspiring the artist is brilliantly devoid of common sense. The artist has nothing to do with it; if he takes orders, he debases himself. The sophisticates elsewhere are no better; they are also ignorant, with smugness to boot.
The artist works for himself alone, and for a few who are like him. Everything will be fine if he knows how to resist the effort of this little group to form a “chapel” — and if he renounces the quiet satisfaction of ever really putting finishing touches to a work. The humility of the perpetually unfinished is one of the essential secrets of wisdom.
Florent Schmitt regains his calm. A magnificent zebra cat solicits the angular caress of a chair leg and settles in a circle near the fire — in the warmth where our words will no longer disturb its nap because its master is accompanying me to the door. The garden is as peaceful as when I arrived. The harmony of the landscape has become so soft that one doesn’t really feel the courage to be misanthropic.
— M. Rousseau, Le Guide du concert et des théâtres lyriques, 25 janvier, 1929
Very good, my friend.
Thank you for your kind note, Mr. Polo. It is an interview well-worth resurrecting, I think!